Sunday, July 24, 2011

Paris in July: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter - Simone de Beauvoir

Nelson Algren, who is best known for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm, was Simone de Beauvoir's lover  for a short time when she was staying in New York City in the 1950s.  After they broke up, he gave a magazine interview in which he said something about how Beauvoir talked so much that he had to fight the urge to put his hand over his mouth and tell her to shut up.  I find Algren's comment boorish and ungentlemanly, but after reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, I certainly understand the impulse.

In her 1958 memoir (the first of many), Beauvoir paints a thorough picture of growing up bourgeois in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s.  She was educated at Catholic schools, and because of her relentlessly inquiring mind, she soon found problems with the whole system and became an unbeliever, much to her devout mother's chagrin.  Her disillusionment got off  to a flying start when the priest who was preparing her class for their First Communion, (to put them on their guard against too much curiosity) told them the story of a young girl whose parents didn't restrict her reading and she read everything she wanted and as a result, she lost her faith and grew weary of existence.  The priest tried to help her, "but her soul was too seriously contaminated and she committed suicide a few days later."  Bookwormy little Simone was indignant that God didn't rush to the aid of someone who wasn't evil, she just loved books too much.

Beauvoir loved her parents, particularly her father, but as she grew into an awkward adolescence, he took every opportunity to ridicule her appearance.  He told her he was proud of her for being a good scholar, but he scorned her for her intellectual bent and her desire to go on and take an advanced degree, although he had always said that Simone and her sister would have to make their own ways in the world since his business ventures had been unsuccessful and there would be no dowries for them.  Beauvoir's portrayal of his behavior seems to indicate that he was intimidated by her.  Her mother was set on making sure that Simone's every move reflected proper behavior and that she would eventually become a good Catholic wife and mother.  From an early age, Simone had no interest in anything remotely maternal -- she didn't even like animals -- and the thought of having a husband in such close proximity every night filled her with horror:  "At night, when you go to bed, you wouldn't be able to have a good cry in peace!"

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is masterful is capturing the claustrophobia that pervaded young Simone's life.  Her parents restricted her reading, monitored her social contacts, made her account for every waking moment and even opened her mail and read it before she could.  This all continued until she was well into college.

This memoir is ferociously intelligent, but there's a little too much relentless self-examination in minute detail.  Beauvoir recounts her story in ruminating paragraphs that are sometimes more than a page long.  Also, there are no pictures, which is my pet peeve for most nonfiction.  When Beauvoir finally started making steps away from her stultifying family and into the intellectual atmosphere where she flourished, (oh yeah, there's a classmate named Jean-Paul who's casually mentioned towards the end of the book) I couldn't even feel happy and relieved for her because I felt so beaten down by her blathery writing style.  I only felt happy and relieved that I was coming to the end of the book and would never have to read it again.


Anonymous said...

I like pictures with my nonfiction too. I read this one a few years ago and found it a bit boorish, but was glad I read it anyway. I doubt I will read any of her other works though.

Kathleen said...

That is such a bummer that there were no pictures. I think in a memoir, that is especially annoying! She sounds like she had a very interesting background and it does make sense the way she turned out later.

Sam Sattler said...

I totally agree with you guys. Much nonfiction, depending on the style in which it is written, of course, can be a little challenging. Breaking up what sometimes seems like endless long paragraphs with a few appropriate pictures is like getting a little break. I can't imagine why a publisher/author would do it any other way...other than budget constraints.

Carrie#K said...

My faith would be crushed by that idiot priest too. Can't let women try to think! It's too much for their pitiful brains. Dimwit.

She does sound blathering! I didn't know that about the author either, what a wild connection.